Community, relationships, connections, and development are often taken for granted. Some groups form naturally, while others struggle engage. Why does this matter? Without citizen engagement a program, organization, or city cannot flourish; schisms form, accountability decreases, and crime rates often increase. Robert Putnam notes that social capital has been decreasing for over a quarter century, there are many proposed reasons as to why social capital is declining—everything from lack of time, changes in the structure of society, economics, and even the electronic revolution. In this highly-tech world we live in, how can we encourage community members to engage? Putnam identifies the three important features of social capital for improving social life: networks, norms, and trust.
Let’s explore a local community through Putnam’s lens based on his article “Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America” to see a few examples of why social capital may be decreasing. South Madison is located on the south side of Madison surrounding the greater Park Street neighborhoods. It is a highly diverse region with many different nationalities represented. This brings up Putnam’s discussion about the role race has on decreased social capital. Trust tends to be the biggest issue when discussing race—with only 17% of blacks reporting that, “most people can be trusted” compared to 45% of whites. These statistics had me somewhat convinced that race was a large factor in the decline of social capital, but Putnam, declares that while there is the issue of trust, race does not explain the entire issue. Then, I considered that mobility may be a factor in decreased social capital in South Madison, but Putnam affirms that individuals actually move less nowadays than they did years ago and this is not the sole factor contributing to the decline in social capital in South Madison. I considered the changes in marriage and family as a potential contributor to the decline of social capital in South Madison, but once again, Putnam determines that there is only minimal evidence to support the notion that changes in family structure could contribute to decreased social capital. While men and women who are married report higher levels of trust and social engagement than those divorced, separated, or never married, it does not explain the normative beliefs. Thus, that brings us to two main contributions to decreased social capital: generation and television. Older generations are more likely to vote, read the news, and join community and church groups. Since WWII there has been a slow decline on social engagement. However, with increased diversity in South Madison, the generation effect may be more prevalent than other areas of Madison where families may not be first or second-generation immigrants. Television is Putnam’s strongest suggestion describing the reason why social capital has decreased. He notes that time spent watching television—and I would change that to “screen” to include newer technologies like smart phones, computers, etc—is replacing time spent joining clubs, civic groups, voting, and engaging in general. When Putnam’s article was published in 1995 it was estimated that Americans watch four hours of television per day, I believe if you add newer technologies to the list, the number of hours per day would be much higher.
While there are many suggested hypotheses to answer the decreased social capital issue, it is likely a combination of many factors with generation, education, and television having the strongest supporting evidence.
Thankfully, Putnam’s suggestion that television is the largest contributor to the decline in social engagement is actually something that we can potentially influence or utilize. Whether that includes creating campaigns that to reach individual’s through their desired platform (television, internet, print, etc) or engaging participants “offline” and helping to establish a welcoming community beyond the screen. Williams, Ducheneaut, Xiong, Yee, and Nickell’s article demonstrates that community can be formed through online video gaming in their article “From Tree House to Barracks: The Social Life of Guilds in World of Warcraft”. This may be a useful platform to engage especially the younger generation in South Madison, if not through actual video games, perhaps through a game-type of event that incorporates the features of gaming that individuals connect with. Using social media as a format to engage local community members may be very beneficial for building social capital in South Madison. Ellison, Steinfield and Lampe’s article as well as Hampton and Wellman’s article note the importance of social media for building connections, relationships, and even neighborhoods. When a community can have an active presence on social media they can work together to solve issues from reducing community crime, to determining the best time to host the next neighborhood festival. One challenge may be finding the correct platform for the individual community members; some may be more active of facebook, others may choose twitter, and still others may not be on any social networking site. How do we get everyone interested and involved in the conversation? What’s the best way to reach the most amount of people in South Madison?
From what I have seen and experienced in South Madison there are two “social dilemmas” that I believe need to be addressed. The first is the segregation of the communities. Although there is a ton of diversity in the region, the different ethnicities and cultures do not interact with one another. The second is that not everyone has access to technology or the internet, which would greatly inhibits collectivity within the community.
I believe that the people of South Madison do not participate in collective action because their neighborhoods have become segregated to the point that they do not have the opportunity to speak to one another on a daily basis. This was evident at the Celebrate South Madison Festival when I observed families of different ethnicities hesitate to interact with one another and get into an argument over littering. The socio-econononic differences of the residents is also a reason for the lack of communication in the community because in the era of online communication some of the residents cannot join in on the online conversation.
In Smart Mobs: The Power of Many, Reignold talks about how mobile technology and cell phone use has changed the way we communicate with one another. The Fillipinos were able to overthrow their President with a mass text message. The text message read, “GO 2EDSA, WEAR BLCK.” This started a revolution in the Philippines and lead to nonviolent collective action that successfully changed the government. In this period of mobility it is crucial to stay connected and with the use of a cell phone you can communicate with almost anyone. Reignold calls these instances of mobile communication that have lead to nonviolent change, “smart mobs.” These “smart mobs” have lead to more peer-to-peer journalism than ever before and have increased community unity in several ways.
Online social media is important in fostering community but because computer technology is not as prevalent in South Madison, as in other areas of the United States, I believe focusing on mobile technology is what will make a difference. Today, almost everyone has access to a cell phone and with the use of text messages there can be a lot more community discussion. These mobile networks of individuals can help to bridge the gap between the different ethnic neighborhoods of South Madison in a plausible way. For example, there can be town meetings held virtually over mobile devices where everyone can say their piece and their opinions can be heard. Change is only possible when people come together and with the use of mobile technology everyone can take part in the conversation.